Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B
October 7, 0010
The evening sun was no more than a red outline over the mountains to the west as the trucks rolled down onto the desert floor. I watched from Humphrey's back with a strange mixture of pride, anticipation, and sadness. For nine years the Citadel had been our home. We had, in many ways, grown up there, but it had served its purpose and it was time for us to move on.
We were strong enough, now, that no one in his right mind would challenge us as a group, and those who knew us also knew better than to challenge us individually.
Riding along in the relative coolness of the fall evening, with the worst of the desert heat behind us for the year, I could not help but think back on how we came to the Citadel. Still ravaged by the trauma of the Sickness and the deaths of those we knew and those we loved, we had been a rag-tag group, not really fully aware of the incredible luck we had when Ruth had become part of our tiny band or of the struggles ahead of us. The Citadel had originally been a desert oasis built by Ruth's brother-in-law, Archie, for himself and his wife, and it had become our fort, our sanctuary, our school, and our home.
I stopped on a small hillock to survey our convoy, and my heart swelled with pride. The point riders ranged half a mile ahead, spread across a wide swath of desert. At the head of the main column came two bio-diesel powered Hummvees with their .50 caliber machine guns manned and ready. Behind them came nine six-by-sixes, loaded with things we thought we would need in our new home. Each truck also mounted at least one machine gun. In the middle of the column, moving well with full stomachs, the cattle were herded by the youngsters. I spotted Little Gav yipping around the far flank and twirling a rope to haze any reluctant animals back into the fold. I hoped we would be able to get them over the mountains before we lost too many of them to the desert.
Behind the cows, the ten remaining trucks kept a loose arc formation which helped keep the cattle moving in the right direction. Off to the left of the lead trucks, Matt and Heather managed the remuda - the herd of extra horses. In two loose columns to either side rode the rest of our band on horseback, each packing the weapons of his or her choice. Amanda rode at the head of the column to the right while General Lee led the column to the left. I couldn't see them, but I knew that there were scouts on our flanks, and well out ahead, as well.
Grey Eagle's pride had suffered a blow when he had been forced to ride one of the trucks. The hip fracture he suffered last year when the horse he was riding got spooked by a rattlesnake had pretty much put an end to his days on horseback. The hip had never healed right, despite the best efforts of Dr. Mondale and our growing medical staff.
I looked back at the rim of the Citadel valley and caught a rhythmic flashing - 'G-O-O-D L-U-C-K' I read. I was tempted to take out my own signal mirror, but our designated signalman was already on the job. The sun no longer reached his truck, but in the shadows between the mountains, the spotlight he used would be readable by watchers on the rim as he acknowledged the message from those who stayed behind.
No, we weren't abandoning the Citadel. We had decided that it was far too valuable, both as a repository for all the books and such that we had collected, and as a training ground for young ones and newbies. It would also serve as a way station for The People in their travels across the desert and as a supply depot for the crews operating the dams on the Colorado as well as those who worked the smelter operation in the next mountain range to the east.
Gunny was first in rotation to command the garrison at the Citadel. Besides forty-three newbies who were still in training, he had a command of eighty seasoned veterans. Every six months, half of the veterans would be relieved and would join us at our new home in a green valley on the western slopes of Sierra Nevada Mountains.
It was a fertile valley, many times the size of the livable area of the Citadel, and had its own water, supplied by runoff from the melting snowpack higher in the mountains. There was a small town there, with a number of houses and buildings that we could make use of. One of the houses was occupied, but its owner had been only too happy to have us move into his neighborhood.
The young man had been a teen in high school when the sickness hit, and had buried his parents and sister, then continued to eke out a living by farming and hunting. He had already had one close call with a wandering band of scavengers, and was grateful for the protection our presence would offer.
Chuck Blanton was his name, and he was also grateful when we figured out the electrical grid well enough to restore electricity to the area. By all accounts, he was a little reluctant to leave his home to go to the Citadel for training, but he developed a serious crush on one of the young women who was with the party that originally contacted him. According to the other members of that party, when the young lady responded to his advances, but expressed serious doubts about being with a man who couldn't hold his own in a fight, he decided that going through the training wouldn't be such a bad thing, after all.
Chuck was among the newbies we had left in Gunny's loving hands. The young lady was one of the veterans training him.
Sand had long ago blown across the roads we had once traveled in and out of the Citadel, so we had to take our time and avoid getting the trucks stuck.
It took us two and a half days to make Barstow and two more to reach the outskirts of Bakersfield. By then, the horses and cattle had eaten almost all of the hay we had in the trucks, and what little water we had left was sloshing around in the bottom of the tanker truck. We had, fortunately, lost only three cows on the journey, but they were not a total loss. Their beef added to our daily rations and helped sustain us on the trail.
We travelled at night and rested in the daytime, pitching shade canopies for the livestock while the people not on watch found what shade they could under and around the trucks. The 'chuck wagon' as Ruth's truck came to be called, was popular not only for the food, but for the shade Ruth provided for those whose turn it was to eat. Even past its summer prime, the Mojave Desert still packed a pretty good punch, and we were more than a little relieved to hit the western slope of the Sierra Nevada on the way to Bakersfield.
We had a short skirmish with a small group of scavengers outside Bakersfield. They thought they could slip into our camp while we were refilling our water truck, and make off with some of our supplies. They were wrong. With two of their number dead and at least two more wounded, they departed having gained nothing but a little wisdom. The next day, as we rested before heading further north, we were approached by a man and two women who claimed they had been scratching out a living on a farm to the northeast, but were finding it harder and harder to keep the scavengers at bay.
As I spoke with the man, a couple of our outriders rode into camp herding two young men.
"These two came with those," Arthel Washington said, indicating, in turn, the young men and the three already in camp. "They hid out in the bushes overlooking the camp."
I raised an eyebrow in the direction of the man who had come with the women. He was unapologetic. "Didn't know for sure what kind of folks you were. Thought we might need a little ace in the hole, in case you weren't the upstanding sort we hoped you were."
"Then why bring the women into camp?" I asked.
"Because, frankly, mister, we're desperate," the man answered, and I could see it in his eyes. "We figured maybe we could, you know, make a deal. These girls may not look like much but they clean up real nice, and..."
His voice trailed off as my attention turned to the gaunt faces of the women. They may have been girls in age, but life had aged them beyond their years.
"What do you want from us?" I asked.
"Whatever you can give," the man answered. "We haven't eaten in a couple of days, and, well, we were growing some vegetables and such, but those folks you ran off yesterday came by and took them."
"We have no charity to give," I answered him. "If you want to join us, you'll live by our rules and train as we've trained. If you can accept those conditions, and we accept you, you're welcome. Otherwise, have a good life."
"Train?" The man looked puzzled.
"Everyone in our community is trained to fight and to survive," I told him. "We have a place in the desert that serves us well as a training ground, but we've outgrown it and are moving to a new place. If you become part of our community, you and these other four will be sent to the desert until your training is complete. Then you will take your place in our society."
"Wait a minute!" He exclaimed. "Are you those folks that have that place... ?" he turned to one of the boys, "What's it called, Clay?"
"The Citadel, I think," Clay answered.
"Yeah, the Citadel! Are you those folks?"
"We are," was all I said.
"Why, we'd be honored to join you!" The man couldn't resist shaking my hand. "Everyone in the Valley has heard about you folks! Word's got around, I can tell you. Nobody wants to mess with the folks from the Citadel! I'm Arnie Grover, this here's Millie. Don't know her last name. The shy one yonder, that's Sammy Downs. Me and her folks knew each other before the sickness. That Millie just sort of showed up one day. Don't talk much, but she's a worker. This here is Clay Nance. Used to be on the local football team. Hell of a running back. This one here, with the curly hair, his name's Dave Snow. Now I don't want you gettin' the wrong idea about them girls. We haven't touched 'em unless they wanted it. Ain't that right, girls?"
The two girls nodded sullenly.
"Arnie, why don't you go get something to eat over there at the truck with the tarp set up. Let me talk to these four for a minute," I told him. Frankly, I wasn't used to anyone talking that much anymore and it was getting on my nerves. I also didn't believe him about the girls, especially since he had as much as offered them as payment for some food.
"Much obliged, mister!" Arnie answered, shuffling off toward the chuck wagon, but not before shooting a warning glance at the women. "Now you girls be on your best behavior!"
As soon as he was out of sight, Millie straightened her shoulders and brushed the hair back from her face, revealing the kind of countenance that used to be called 'handsome.' It was too strong to be considered beautiful, but had the kind of attractive strength that just drew people in. She stuck a grimy hand out to be shaken.
"My real name is Harriet Paulson," she said, "and Arnie lied to you. Sammy and I tried to live together after the Sickness. We had known each other before and we just moved into her parents' home and tried to continue farming a little. Arnie came by the house one day while I was out in the fields and forced her to go with him, saying it was better for her. I saw him dragging her away, but there was nothing I could do to stop him. I hung around his place and waited for my opportunity, but when I tried to get Sammy out of there, this one..." She nodded in the direction of the football player, "caught me. I thought there might be some advantage if I didn't let on that I knew Sammy, so I told them my name was Millie, then kept my mouth shut. You can't get caught in a lie if you don't say anything."
"So these three kept you prisoner?" I asked. I had not liked Arnie much, but I had no real reason to believe Harriet or Millie or whoever she was, either.
"Only Arnie and Clay," she answered. "Dave tried to get them to let us go, but they just made fun of him and called him a sissy."
"And did they abuse you?" I asked the question of Harriet, but was watching Sammy as I did. Her face answered the question before Harriet did.
"Oh, as rapists go, I guess they weren't too bad," Harriet shrugged. "I mean, they wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, but they didn't hit us or rough us up too much. Most of the time they were reasonably civil."
"Why didn't you run away?"
"To where?" Harriet asked. "Sammy was twelve and I was thirteen when they got us. The only people around seem to be the kind that would just as soon cut your throat for a few bites of food as look at you, and they've got plenty of women. There's no reason to believe we would have been better off with any of them."